Chicago law firm Steele Hansmeier PLLC is quickly developing a reputation as copyright trolls par excellence. Acting on behalf of porn producers, the firm has filed lawsuits against thousands of John and Jane Does who allegedly downloaded copyrighted pornographic material from file-sharing sites such as BitTorrent. The lawsuits are followed by letters to the defendants that lay out the consequences of going to court, including potential damages of up to $150k per downloaded file. The letters also repeatedly mention the potential social stigma of having one’s name forever linked in the public’s mind with Naughty Knob-Gobblers #19.
However, should the defendant agree to pay a one-time fee of around $3,000 (by credit card, to make things extra convenient), the trolls will go away and keep your filthy little secret safe. They’ll even call you at home right before the settlement offer expires, just to give you every opportunity to, er, come quietly.
But what if you’re a 70-something widow from San Francisco that has never heard of BitTorrent, thinks Long Dong Silver is a chain of seafood restaurants, and who never quite figured out how to encrypt her WiFi connection? Well, tough titty, Granny. According to the law firm’s John Steele, an unsecured internet connection is no defense. The trolls are also undeterred by the staggeringly obvious conclusion that Granny’s no porn connoisseur. Pay up, you old bitty, or we’ll tell the girls down at the bridge club about your peculiar fascination with a tender interracial love story entitled Whoreo.
Steele Hansmeier appear to be cut from the same crappy cloth as Righthaven, which has sued almost 300 bloggers, reporters, charities and some online gambling affiliates that allegedly infringed on copyrighted material belonging to Stephens Media (publishers of the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Denver Post). Fronted by Nevada-based attorney Steve Gibson (pictured right), Righthaven’s M.O. is to identify sites that repost (in whole or in part) work owned by Stephens, after which Stephens assigns copyright in that material over to Righthaven, which then files a federal lawsuit seeking $150k and the infringer’s domain name. Naturally, Righthaven will settle out of court for a lot less, which they split 50/50 with Stephens.
However, courts have not looked favorably on Righthaven’s heavy handed and legally dubious tactics. Earlier this year, US District Court Judge James Mahan ruled that Righthaven’s use of copyright for the sole purpose of suing strips that copyright of much of its traditional protection. In April, a judge unsealed the agreement between Righthaven and Stephens Media, which revealed that Stephens hadn’t actually assigned any of the rights related to copyright except the right to sue, which may render Righthaven’s tactics legally moot.
In June, US District Judge Roger Hunt ruled that this sham contract meant Righthaven lacked the standing to sue, and that Righthaven had been “disingenuous, if not outright deceitful” in its attempt to “manufacture standing.” (Less than a week later, a different US District Judge dismissed a separate Righthaven case on similar grounds.) But Hunt went further, giving Righthaven a couple weeks to manufacture some reason why he shouldn’t give them a good spanking. Time ran out this week, so Hunt fined Righthaven $5k for their “intentional” misrepresentations, calling them “a law firm with a contingent fee agreement masquerading as a company.”
Righthaven’s woes are far from over. Some of the defendants have since filed claims against Righthaven for reimbursement of legal fees, which in some cases amount to over $100k. Righthaven has since claimed that the failure to cite Stephens Media as an ‘interested party’ in the suits was the fault of three Righthaven underlings, two of which are no longer with the company. Gibson is not identified as one of the three, even though he was an attorney of record in some of these specific suits. True to form, Righthaven is considering appeals of all these rulings. Seriously, trolls… Righthaven’t you learned your lesson yet?